« | Home | »

History Man

Tags: | | |

A few days before telling Shami Chakrabarti to ‘shut up’ about the Human Rights Act, David Starkey gave a lecture on Magna Carta at the British Library. Asked his opinion on Hilary Mantel’s portrayal of Thomas Cromwell in Wolf Hall, he said that it was historically inaccurate and ‘lady novelists need a hero’. (Earlier this year he called the novel a ‘deliberate perversion of fact’.) To hear Starkey tell it, you’d think Wolf Hall was full of scenes of a shirtless Cromwell scything in the summer heat. His view isn’t only misogynist, but completely misses the point. It’s a bit like saying Shakespeare’s history plays are bad history.

The subject of the lecture was billed as ‘Magna Carta and Us’, but he said he was actually going to talk about ‘Magna Carta: the Missing Century’, because in his view the BL’s exhibition had missed out the Tudors in telling the story of Magna Carta’s reality and myth. So far, so ungracious.

The ‘missing’ material in the exhibition was never really explained. (The first printed edition of the charter, from 1508, is on display.) But Starkey seemed determined to hammer a Reformation-shaped peg into a Magna Carta-shaped hole. He went into a long explanation of the distinction between ecclesiastical and common law, without fully accounting for how Magna Carta fitted in.

For Starkey, the performance comes first. He goes in for low melodrama. ‘And then your private parts are cut off before your eyes,’ he said, describing hanging, drawing and quartering. Then he paused, surveyed the room: ‘It’s wonderful.’

‘I first took to the stage with the confidence you see here tonight,’ he said, ‘in my portrayal of Thomas Beckett in a school play of Murder in the Cathedral.’ (He didn’t comment on Eliot’s historical credentials.) The swaggering schoolboy was still evident in his snickering comments about Mantel.

Comments

  1. farthington says:

    Every so slightly off topic, I am on the last pages of A Place of Greater Safety.
    This is a monumental work, and will be read for a very long time into the future.
    Mantel’s reputation can only grow in time, not diminish.
    Will David Starkey’s star last as long?

    • outofdate says:

      Will either? Fancy taking on David Starkey in these here pages. How bold. How almost unimaginably controversial.

    • elstonc@sky.com says:

      I had to give up on A Place of Greater Safety half way through. Too many characters. There is a dramatis personae at the front but it takes too long to navigate back to it on a Kindle. I suppose if I’d got the paperback I could have kept my thumb in that place.

    • JudyS says:

      I agree with your assessment.

  2. Timothy Rogers says:

    As an American who does not follow British politicians in the news with any regularity, I’m not familiar with Starkey, but his pronouncement on women writers needing a hero just won’t wash. If anything, the opposite is true (i.e., many male writers have needed a hero (or heroics performed by their protagonist), and many themes of fiction and nonfiction writing depend upon variations on the theme of male heroism. That much should be obvious (and is not meant to indict such writers – after all, heroics engage readers and can be done either realistically, fantastically, or with saccharine sentimentality, etc.). Hemingway should be mentioned as the patron saint of writers who create strong and silent heroes, while also attempting to present themselves to the public as heroic characters (in H’s case this aspect of his life, which eventually contaminated his writing, created a legend fabricated of wholecloth and unsavory, lying braggadocio – but then he was a drunk and a bit of drug abuser, so perhaps he couldn’t see himself any more clearly than he could see the world).

    Mantel seems to be not only well informed about the Tudor era, she’s also taken a very shrewd approach to the depiction of character. Anyone familiar with Machiavelli’s advice to his Prince will have no difficulty in squaring that peculiarly secular outlook of the era with the way people involved in public affairs think and act today, so Cromwell is not “anachronistically” characterized in his thinking about the affairs of Henry VIIIth and his abettors and foes – rather he is very plausible, comparable to a very well-tested and worldly adviser who can keep a “poker face”. Historical novels (and films based on them) can never be totally accurate or exactly “just right” in all their details or their ability to present the mind-set of a very different time, but Mantel’s series gets about as close to this ideal as possible. In this respect Starkey’s dismissive remarks are born of either ignorance or envy.

    • Dean Alexander Coulter says:

      Gosh I cannot seem to find the “like” button on the LRB blog so Tim: here’s a like.

      • Emma Bovary says:

        Yes, envy of a little ‘history boy’ goes deeper than you think! Please read Alan Bennet.

    • AlanMunton says:

      Amusing but understandable that Timothy Rogers thinks Starkers – sorry, Starkey – is a politician. A friend once described him to me as a right-wing anarchist, which seems about right. He’s certainly a deeply conservative academic who has been allowed far too much media access, for reasons that aren’t clear. Does he get on because he’s so weird? He seems to be heading in the direction of Sir Tim Hunt. Doesn’t anybody have the courage to interrupt his lectures, and (anarchically) get him to discuss?

  3. Kathleen Jamie says:

    Would that be the same David Starkey as likens the SNP to the Nazis, the saltire to the swastika, Nicola Sturgeon to Hitler? Thought so. Why are folk still listening to him?

  4. ernieschell says:

    The history aside, I find the language in Wolf Hall to be too gratingly modern. I don’t need archaic or faux Tudor (methinks that daft). But I would expect some deference to linguistic authenticity. If that makes the drama more difficult to comprehend, it will remind us that though people are people throughout the ages, standards and mores are constantly changing, as are ways of expressing oneself. So is the general sense of humor. While some things have been ever amusing or funny, some things have not.

  5. JudyS says:

    Starkey is what the kids call “thirsty”; it is embarrassing when it becomes so obvious.

    There is a clip of Starkey and Mantel discussing Henry VIII on Youtube, and Starkey just could not stop talking. I am not sure it was sexism as much as he was terrified the brilliant Mantel would get a word in. I don’t blame him; Mantel’s voice and perspective are fresh and intelligent whereas Starkey is just an echo chamber of dated opinions relayed in slightly histrionic tone. Is he related to the Starkeys of the Tudor time?

    Re the books, I think Mantel swung the pendulum a tad too far in reverse of ‘A Man for All Seasons” and I don’t buy it, but how funny that she is the born Catholic and Bolt was not. I don’t think that is a coincidence. Someone is going to have to do an objective read on her interpretation of More vs Cromwell and what exactly she thinks she is rejecting vs embracing. I don’t think she completely knows which makes it all the more fascinating.

    As an American, I cant help but notice the scent of continued class warfare in all this. I kind of love it, actually.

    • Harry Stopes says:

      Who’s at war with whom, in this scenario? Starkey versus Mantel? Starkey vs Mary Wellesley? LRB readers vs Starkey? This being Britain, there’s definitely some class warfare involved somewhere (though under the surface), but I don’t see where exactly you think it fits into the story being told above.

      • JudyS says:

        Hello Harry.

        First off, how fun to say “Hello Harry” to a Brit. Makes me think of Hoorah Harry. We just don’t get to say that over here.

        Okay, then basically you are telling me I am right to sense it. Thank you!

        And to be clear, I pick it up in all 3 issues:

        1) More vs Cromwell
        2) How Mantel describes each
        3) Starkey vs Mantel if he indeed comes directly from the old family and claims some kind of superiority of assessment based on the bloodline. If he does, I find that amusing. I admit it.

        Does that help?

        • JudyS says:

          I just realized how ineffective a response I wrote to you. Here is my second try as I want to be clear.

          Wellesley, whose assessment I agree with, said this:

          Asked his opinion on Hilary Mantel’s portrayal of Thomas Cromwell in Wolf Hall, he said that it was historically inaccurate and ‘lady novelists need a hero’. (Earlier this year he called the novel a ‘deliberate perversion of fact’.) To hear Starkey tell it, you’d think Wolf Hall was full of scenes of a shirtless Cromwell scything in the summer heat. His view isn’t only misogynist, but completely misses the point. It’s a bit like saying Shakespeare’s history plays are bad history.

          There is no doubt this is sexist. But having seen the man in action in Mantel’s company, I sensed another thing at play as well: fear -driven arrogance. I sense from Starkey that he is quite jealous of his own spot, thinks it comes as his due in some manner, and I was guessing it partially had to do with the long history of the name Starkey. For example, had the truly wonderful writer Antonia Frazer penned Wolf Hall (completely impossible, I know) would he have quite the level of rancor and fear, or would he be first in line to applaud her for being a lady of wit?

          I could be wrong here re the name. I do know the name Fiennes was around then and they were highly ranked. I have seen the name Starkey and assumed the same may be true, but I don’t know and no one seems to want to say. I just think the idea of a More v Cromwell and Starkey v Mantel on the same relative power positions would be an interesting subject to ponder. Though, of course, neither reflects either man himself. I just meant symbolically.

          I take all that and apply it to the book itself, which looks at the same history as Starkey has written and performed, with a fresh eye. Wrong or right, it is a breathtaking evaluation. As someone who isn’t a fan of historical novels in general, I can only laugh at Starkey’s absurd comment on Wolf Hall, and tell him if his view is so off on so brilliant a novel I am rather astonished anyone would buy in to his other assessments regarding content and character.

          Thank you for giving me the opportunity to clarify why I posted the comments I did prior. You are welcome to find them off target or not quite up to the LRofB, but this is the blog and perhaps allowances can be made.

  6. StanSmith says:

    Re JudyS

    Patronising US reference to English class warfare comes good from a citizen of a country where you have to be a millionaire to become or pick a president

    • JudyS says:

      Hello Stan,

      Interestingly though, the money in the Clinton and Obama families was earned, not inherited, through their own brilliance. Same as Mantel’s hard earned success. ;-)

      So perhaps you could answer my question rather than name call? We are all grown-ups here, aren’t we?

    • Timothy Rogers says:

      I don’t think the comment was meant to be patronizing, but rather a reflection of the fact that many American viewers of BBC productions are interested in, entertained by, and sometimes baffled by the ins and outs of just who is in and out in the British class system. Also, neither our millionaire/billionaire Electors (in the sense used in the Holy Roman Empire) nor the ludicrous candidates they pick and push are very classy. That kind of “classiness” would be anathema to most of the electorate, for reasons that have to do with either envy or resentment.

      • JudyS says:

        Timothy,

        While I appreciate your defense, and you are indeed correct that I was not being “patronizing”, I am actually not educated merely by means of television, though I would agree that people on both sides of the pond get a lot of their history from it, and, in the case of the beeb, their financial lifeblood. I was commenting herein on an actual book. Hardcover. Some of us do read them still and actually subscribe to newsletters about them.

        I was, however, pointing out the obvious that England still has a class system and that it comes out in interesting and entertaining ways. I do believe that Mantel associates More with just the same arrogant blowhards as seem to rule certain topics today, and Cromwell with the educated made wo/men who claw their way to “knighthoods” based on more skill and intellect than their supposed “betters”. In that light, Wold Hall is all about England today, I think.

        Ralph Fiennes, of that equally long established name, has stated the same re the continuation of the inherited vs earned status in England.. He did not find it as amusing as I do for obvious reasons. He is also not on TV unless you count Netflix.

        Cheers to all.

    • JudyS says:

      Stan,

      I came back to sincerely congratulate you on tempering your annoyance by simply calling me “patonizing”. As I noted, I really have many a Brit’s quotes to support my assessment, as well as my own impressions. I have also been to many parts of Great Britain, some more than once, and loved them all. Wales is especially beautiful.

      On another site, I referred to the England of Henry Tudor as “small” compared to France and Spain at the time. They knew I was American and I was told I came from a “mongrel nation” and was personally insulted while being asked to apologize for calling England “small”.

      There has to be a place where people can discuss history without resorting to quoting Adolf Hitler or getting squeamish and enraged about factual statements. “The Economist” magazine just printed the stat that The US has 5% of the world’s population and 25% of its jails and you don;t see American pitchforks outside their offices. I don’t know if that stat is accurate, but if I had reason to think it was wrong I would counter them without resorting to nazi sentiments.

      We have our own problems here in the US – recent hate crimes are devastating reminders that we need to do a lot of work. But the person who called my country full of “mongrels” was a Brit and she was called “lovely” by the site owner. I know of no other history site where that would be the case outside of what I suspect I would see on a KKK or neo-nazi recruiting board.

      So, in conclusion, I will be careful when expressing amusement about your cultural heritage and perhaps you can continue to show people how courteous people, when annoyed, can express themselves in a less than toxic way.

      Thank you.

      • Alan Benfield says:

        Judy, don’t you just love people who refer to others as ‘mongrels’?

        Being English, I come from a nation which has been invaded at one time or another by half of Europe and for that reason has a language which is basically a Germanic creole (and like most creoles inflection has largely dropped out) comprising elements of Norman French, Old Norse and the various Celtic languages which the Angles, Saxons and Danes pushed over into the North and West. Our present monarch is descended from the Elector of Hanover. From the 11th century until well into the Plantagenets, ‘English’ monarchs were basically Normans. At one point our king was a Dutchman (who was invited to invade us). One has to smile at those who can talk of the ‘purity of the English race’ and keep a straight face. I suspect your attacker was one of those.

        In any case, you are quite right that England by the reign of Henry VIII was a small place compared with what it had been under the Plantagenets. I can’t see that anyone could take issue with that.

        I would be fascinated to know which site it was, but I guess you don’t want to post it here.

        • JudyS says:

          Hello,

          Thanks for your response. I am a mix of all the Danes and Celts and Gauls you can stir in a lovely pot We have been adding Native American, Jewish, Italian and now Chinese to the blend and the results are lovely with more ethnicities on the way. Yummy.

          England was not a player either size or wealth wise at the time compared to her super power neighbors but she knew how to make great use of what she did have. When Henry started funding the Navy the world changed. We all know that. It’s sort of 101 over here at least when I went to private school (your public). My point was that one could not ignore that when assessing Henry’s motivations and those of Cromwell etc. and even those of Elizabeth I, Not sure how that could lead to mass hysteria as it isn’t exactly historical rocket science. They did seem to have some odd reasons for taking offense, although I admit to being caustic about Tudor bodice ripper novels. Bird cage liners.

          In all seriousness, after seeing what happened in my country last week I have zero tolerance for comments like the Adolf Hitler quote, and I agree that since the site owner left it up for two weeks – no doubt waiting for me to see it – that I may have unwittingly been debating with some Unity Mitford fangirls. I pointed out it was a Hitler quote and the owner told me I was wrong. So really either completely ignorant or malicious, you get your tasty pick.

          In closing on a positive note, I had really wanted to come over and see the exhibitions re Waterloo but am tied to home for awhile. But knowing GB, there will be something else to come over for next year and
          I look forward to again spending time with the charming and warm people of all the Isles.

          Cheers & cheerio,
          JS

          • JudyS says:

            Just to be clear, this was tongue in cheek:

            “hey did seem to have some odd reasons for taking offense, although I admit to being caustic about Tudor bodice ripper novels. Bird cage liners.”

            A play, if you will, on Starkey’s comment. I certainly wasn’t putting Wolf Hall in that column.

    • stockwelljonny says:

      As a Brit I have to say that I find chippy responses to American comnments which are labelled as patronising, which seem to be wheeled out quite commonly, very patronising.

      • JudyS says:

        I realize this wasn’t directed to me, but I would like to thank you all the same.

        I will say that I thought perhaps Stan, whom I do not know at all, was aping Starkey’s fake answer above re Mantel with one of his own to me. I always prefer the charitable view, so I am going to take it as Stan making a rather witty joke on how some men get in a tizzy by a forward “dame”.

        Happy trails.

  7. DonalODanachair says:

    Quote from the LRB review of Wolf Hall (30 April 2009):

    “Mantel’s chief method is to pick out tableaux vivants from the historical record – which she has worked over with great care – and then to suggest that they have an inward aspect which is completely unlike the version presented in history books. The result is less a historical novel than an alternative history novel.”

  8. PhilipA says:

    I rather regret that the comments here, while surely interesting, have tended to focus more on Mantel and Wolf Hall than Starkey. Thus, a number of points tersely stated. First, it strkes me as psychologically interesting that Starkey would attack the concern re human rights when his acceptance as an openly gay man so much results from the battle for such rights. I have a suspicion as to the reason, the same one I have about gay Republicans in the U.S., but I’m not aiming to be controversial here.

    Secondly, three things have afflicted the academic discipline of History, the first in the early 1970s, the latest the catastrophic plague of post-Modernism. In between came the ever-increasing narrowing of historian’s interests and writings, so that now it is widely acknowledged that they write only for each other. Let us not forget that Starkey is also an academic historian, not, in my view, and good one by any stretch. Further, academic historians who ‘go popular’ mostly go into decline where the quality of their work is concerned. Thus, Starkey, I should say, is a C-grade academic who has become a D-grade popularizer. But most relevant here, also a narrow one. like most He did indeed try to ram a Magna Carta peg into a Reformation hole (I think Mary got that metaphor backwoods) because that period is all he has any grasp on.

    His ‘thesis’ is missing because there isn’t one to be had. Ecclesiastical and Common Law and their distinctions have nothing to do with it. There are surely myths about MC, the most obvious that it gave new rights and liberties to the populace at large. In reality, it stated rights bestowed on the highest orders which limited the King’s powers. But the main point relevant here is that it was in short order ignored by every succeeding monarch wholly through the next 350 years, and partially for a period thereafter. RE MC during those 350 years, there really isn’t much to say except that it might just as well not have been. The one period Starkey knows about was missing from the exhibition because it was of no significance in that period. Starkey just meandered around what he knows something about, an actor as always, and I deplore most that he was selected to give this lecture. Well, it occurs to me wasn’t, in a sense. He was supposed to be speaking on ‘Magna Carta and Us’. One of the reasons he couldn’t do that was because it would lead to talk of liberties and rights, and he’s not too keen on those, apparently. Except his own, of course.

    • Timothy Rogers says:

      Philip A.is correct about the trend within academic history departments. There we encounter increasingly sophisticated methodology at the service of that which needs little explanation or that which is of interest only to other academics in their career moves as they shinny up the greasy poll. However, there are still good historians who write for the general public, which occasionally (for the time being) rewards them by buying enough of their books to keep them in business. Right off the bat I’ll name Norman Davies, Richard Evans, Richard Overy, Robin Lane Fox, Sheila Fitzpatrick (of A Spy in the Archives, among many of her insightful books about the USSR). Some of the best popular historians (who also cannot be faulted for slipshod research) came out of journalism, e.g., Edward Crankshaw and Sebastian Haffner, and their works are all the better for their broader professional background (broader, that is, than that of the man or woman who has never strayed far from the seminar room or lecture hall). There are still those around who can make Greek and Roman antiquity vibrant and engaging for the general reader (Peter Green, Mary Beard, Michael Grant). The writers of biographies of major historical figures (Napoleon, Stalin, Hitler being three worked to death) tend to put them in a wider context (political, economic, social, cultural), giving the reader picture of a figure in field of forces, and thereby integrating the approaches of specialized disciplines that started in the late 19th century. So, beyond the propped-up walls of academic history departments, the situation isn’t hopeless. The real problem may be diminishing readership in the era of infotainment, ubiquitous gadgetry, and poor general education, a combination likely to produce citizens bereft of historical knowledge

      • PhilipA says:

        I agree, Timothy. I would only suggest one modification to what you say. I think the fine examples you name are not properly to be described as writing for the general public. Rather, they hark back to a tradition we largely lost for a long time, the tradtion of those who wrote academic history while intending it to be accessible to the general reader. A prime example of this was the great American historian of Renaissance Europe and Elizabethan England, Garrett Mattingly, perhaps best know for his book on the Spanish Armada. J.H. Hexter in an admiring essay suggested that Mattingly was so bent on this that he perhaps overdit it — his Renaissance Diplomacy was never likely to reach a general readership, and unhappily he discarded much of the academic apparatus in trying to do so. There were many such then for whom this manner of writing was natural. I think of Trevelyan. Those you mention are in that tradition. Academic historians who have written books aimed at the general public only by writing books on subjects almost guaranteed to sell I find become shoddy. Certainly in the States, it’s led to a rash of accusations and law suits re plagiarism. Writing loses any style. Errors are made. Of course they are. One really good seller and you have a contract for X number of books, and an advance on the next — and deadlines!!!!!! That last has seen writers in many areas of literature done in, for this is also the age of the short deadline and cashing in. Academics cannot, should never, write to deadlines, never contract for future books. Hence, many non-academic, so-called amateur historians, are better than the preceding academic popularizers. But that tradition of great amateur historians, e.g., Dame Veronica Wedgwood — that really is gone. I cannot praise those academics who subsume the general public in their intended readership highly enough. The epidemic of post-Modernism I truly believe is making a mockery of History as a discipline. The historians we both admire may be the bastion that saves it.

        A fine discussion,and I thank you, Timothy.

        • Timothy Rogers says:

          You put a much finer point on these distinctions than I did (which is good), and I’m in agreement with what you say. For me, Wedgwood’s book on the Thirty Years’ War is the indispensable one for any English-language reader who wishes to learn about a very complicated story that had long-lasting consequences. And A.J.P. Taylor, writing about the late Habsburg Empire as a truly professional historian, is every bit as readable as Crankshaw on that subject. Some of the recurring interpretive schemes that stem from postmodernist theory can be useful in moderation. E.g., “identity studies” can contribute to the understanding of the wave of late 19th century ethnocentric nationalism throughout Europe and elsewhere (including among groups who did not have their own nation-states – yet), but usually such schemes are overworked and procrustean, becoming stale,repetitive, and even obsessional.

          • johnbax says:

            As a long standing member of an academic history department I don’t recognise this caricature of ‘postmodernism’ in any of my colleagues’ writings – or, naturally, my own. It is telling that nobody has defined what they mean by postmodernism or named a single historian or book which is tainted with this mysterious disease. As for recommending textbooks written respectively 77 and 61 years ago, you must be having a laugh. These books were good in their time, but to see them as the last word today is is to assume that historical knowledge never advances.

            • johnbax says:

              Sorry, should have said 77 and 67.

            • PhilipA says:

              I think I may safely speak for both Timothy and myself in saying that neither us said that the books in question are the last word in research on their subject matter. That is not what this discussion was about. Rather it was about modes of the presentation of historical research in writing and its accessibility to the general reader. Nor was it about post-Modernism. I did not describe or define it in the context of historical approaches, so I could hardly be said to have caricatured it. If you want me to, I’d describe it as subjectivism and relativism run amok and expressed in language so opaque as to constitute an excruciating mode of expression written in a closed vocabulary. But, as I said, that’s not the subject, I include that comment purely for your edification, and it’s my last word re this post, which is about David Starkey and Magna Carta, by the way.

    • JudyS says:

      You may regret the focus on Mantel, but her book is the focus of the original post as called out in sentence number 2.

      Your subsequent comments are interesting additions and I am enjoying them.

  9. Mat Snow says:

    Why is David Starkey the first-call historian invited to comment, lecture or debate on any issue with a historical component, however remote from the period about which he can with justification claim to know anything much at all?

    Is it because he is the only historian many under-educated researchers have ever heard of?

    Because he in the tradition of ornamental British twits who have so added to the delectation of the nation for as long as most of us can remember?

    Because he virtually guarantees that most valuable publicity commodity, clickbait?

    Some combination of the three?

    • JudyS says:

      Matt,

      I think it is because he has made a lot of TV shows that are shown on youtube and PBS. Simon Schama is also a name a lot of people know, but he is wise enough to temper his views with a caveat if he is not an expert..

      To be fair, the Tudors are pitched by GB as a tourist attraction to get Americans visiting ie the site poor Anne Boleyn lost her head, the gruesome tower of London etc. Which is fine. My first trip over I did the Tudor tour and it was a blast. But you can’t then blame people for being entertained by your entertainment. We don’t all have time to read extensively about the Reformation unless personally fascinated or an academic by trade.

  10. Timothy Rogers says:

    OK then, time for both an apology and a few explanations, which I will try to keep brief. Because of the fact that in the USA (I am not very familiar with the situation in the UK) many, university departments or programs (especially at the “big name” schools) in the social sciences (e.g., sociology, anthropology) and in all branches of the humanities were influenced by various French theories that became rampantly fashionable in the late 1970s, my assumption, noted below, was that they had an impact on the writing of some historians. And, as Philip A states, these were my remarks, not his. He may agree or disagree with them in all or in part, but he has no obligation to defend or explain them. Sometimes the thread of a blog gets confusing about who said what. No big deal.

    We all know the big names who flashed like blinking lights on departmental marquees: Barthes (whose writing I actually like, without believing for a moment in many of its broader claims – he should have realized that the traffic signs about stepping off the curb were not actually “self-referential discourse” in the universe of text but rather a real warning), Derrida (the Deconstruction movement’s likeable general apologist), de Man (the Belgian falsifier of his own life and career), Foucault (not bad at times, interesting and suggestive, but often zany and untrustworthy when it comes to cherry-picking facts and overgeneralizing his interpretive schemas), Lacan (only the insanity plea can save him, while only a special code-descrambler can make him intelligible to those outside his cult), Baudrillard (fantasist, vastly funny at times), and the entirely despicable Althusser (a Marxist philosopher who admitted late in life that he had only read a little bit of Marx and that he didn’t really understand it but needed to appear to be a Marxist in order to advance professionally). Leszek Kolakowski has done the major demolition job on this “soft Marxist” crew. There are others of the second order whose special mission is to “debunk science”, but while they influence academic social science departments in the training of disciples, they have no influence on the real world as most of us know it (family life, politics, jobs, sexual relations, economic institutions and practices, cultural pursuits or other avocations and enthusiasms, etc.) – or on science, which keeps chugging along, whether or not we like all of its practical applications (the scientists’ “explanatory paradigm” is still effective and productive).

    Needing a term of convenience, most of their readers (whether pro or con) view these writers/thinkers as post-modernists. This isa nonce term, anyway, and one which the American novelist and non-fiction writer, D. F. Wallace, worried about its at times obnoxious influence on fiction and his own writing, said was more or less anything its users wanted it to mean; one might as well call them “late modernists with a special twist” who were slaying their intellectual moms and pops or merely “contemporary thinkers who have formed a school of thought and are involved in what they conceive to be a common project”). A melange of their ideas congealed into all-purpose (social or critical) “Theory” – its sharpest and most bellicose expression over here would be in articles published by the journal Social Text, victim of the hilarious Sokal hoax, while its more moderate and occasionally plausible expressions can be found in fiction and commentary in the nice little literary journal n+1. Obviously there are many other venues for their ideas. The true believers in the tenets of post-modernism have serious problems with writing, their specialized jargon and clotted syntax (and bad prose in general) being indicative of muddy thinking (often with a nod to the alleged profundity of that lederhosen mystic, Heidegger) and perhaps of a certain lack of self-confidence in their own stated beliefs. Anyway, this is my evaluation of the movement and its version of “Theory”, based on my own reading of many of its signal works. Others will no doubt beg to differ.

    My mistake, perhaps, was to assume that the theories conveyed by the above-indicted affected history-writing as well, assuming that history professors are no more immune to the intellectually trendy than anyone else. I still read a lot of recently published history put out by academic departments, and much of it is good, so my shaft seems to have been misaimed, or I overstated my case. Mea maxima culpa. I’m not going to go on the hunt for specific titles that might illustrate my hunch about some historians being infected by “the French bug” – why would I spend any of my fast-dwindling time on earth in such a pursuit?

    So, that’s it, in a capacious nutshell. And, three cheers for (good) history writing. Because this discussion has drifted so far from its pretext (Starkey as historian-critic), for which I am partly responsible, I believe we should end it here.

  11. PhilipA says:

    But you were not wrong, Timothy. Post-Modernists have entered the field of History while at the same time denying its validity as a discipline. Their fundamental position is a either remarkably naive or very cunning, for they argue that History is not valid as it depends upon the individual practitioner’s interpretation of sources. Well, lawdy, as if we didn’t already know that! We’ve been discussing it for a century. Indeed, it goes further than that, for there is also the preceding matter of what sources we choose in the first place. The way to deal with this, in my view, is to admit the element of relativism inherent in the activity of being an historian, and then to think of the best way to work with it. It is for this reason that I’ve also favoured a coherence theory of knowledge over the correspondence theory, or a meshing of the two, though that is not so easy to achieve or adhere to.

    The solution of the post-Modernist practitioners is simply to declare everything relative and any approximation of the truth impossible to achieve. This throws the door open to using the historical past as a repository of examples used in the service of other subjects, much as political scientists in some fields use it, or in the service of other agendas altogether. Identity Studies and Gender Studies would be two such fields, both valid in themselves, but potentially with agendas in the cause of which History is used but as a handmaiden. Such is how things have developed, and the result has been so-called History further and further removed from any attempt to elucidate what actually happened in the historical past and why in historical context. In short, opinion pieces with bits of decontextualised history used as examples. As for the origins of all this, I think you summed it up superbly in your capacious nutshell.

    • johnbax says:

      Names, references, examples? Let’s have some of the old-fashioned historical virtues.

      • PhilipA says:

        On theory, see works of Alan Munslow, Keith Jenkins (especially), Hans Kellner, Frank Ankersmit, for starters. They all offer splendid distortions of what historians actually do. For examples of theory as praxis, see Paul Carter’s Lost Subjects; Simon Schama’s Dead Certainties; Richard Price’s Alabi’s World; Norman Davies’ The Isles; Perry Johansson’s article “A War over Sources…” in Kinaraport. Etc., Etc. Straw men abound in the theory, so historians will find little engagement with the epistemology and practices they actually adhere to. Rather there is mighty leap to a reductio: the battle over truth in History is lost, and all for the want of a horseshoe nail. The post-Modernist theory is absolute, but all else is so hopelessly relative that one might as well admit it and write whatever one wants, openly penning fictions if one chooses, as Schama says he does. The questions I mentioned have been discussed by historians for a century, longer in fact, are not addressed. I see no evidence of engagement with Ranke, Popper, Oakeshott, Collingwood, Hexter, Geyl, Elton, et al. It has produced no notable contributions to historical literature, but then its most fundamental tenet is that it can’t, given the tenet that no approximation of the truth is possible. Happy reading for you, though. Enjoy.

        • johnbax says:

          As a practicing historian I have read most of these, and taught some of them at undergraduate and postgraduate level, and I do not accept your estimation of them. You mention ‘the post-Modernist theory’, but there is no such thing; you are simply using this blanket term to dismiss a large and varied range of theoretical perspectives and historical practices of which you disapprove, apparently because they don’t share your own view of historical truth, which you haven’t actually spelled out, but which you evidently consider to be absolute and irrefutable. I have enjoyed your rhetorical flourishes, which take me back to the 1970s, but I have no desire to fight the battles of those far off days all over again. The dogs bark, but the caravan has long ago moved on.

  12. PhilipA says:

    …moved on further and further into the desert.

    • johnbax says:

      Ha ha, nice one, I like it. ‘Across’ was more what I had in mind. I’ll let you know if I find the bleached bones of Althusser, Barthes and Foucault along the way.


  • Recent Posts

    RSS – posts

  • Contributors

  • Recent Comments

    • Timothy Rogers on Fifa v. the FBI: What stake the US has in the ongoing tragicomedy of the FiFa World-Cup selection process is unclear. There is still no mass market for the sport in t...
    • Timothy Rogers on One Cubit the More: Yes, the talk (or essay) was a deliberative, thoughtful one. The cubit is used as a quantitative measure to indicate the amount of scientific knowled...
    • AndrewL on One Cubit the More: Thank you for the link, Timothy. I must admit, I had naively assumed it would be a "shoulders of giants" talk too, but it is so much better than that...
    • Timothy Rogers on One Cubit the More: Here is the link to the talk, which was published in the August 1963 issue of Encounter. It is really about intellectual modesty and clarity about ou...
    • AndrewL on One Cubit the More: In case anyone else is looking for the original Bible verse, as I was, I think it is Matthew 6:27: "Which of you by taking thought can add one cubit t...

    RSS – comments

  • Contact

  • Blog Archive

Advertisement
Advertisement